Jazz isn't dead: Miraculously, there's always young people who continue to fall in love with this most dazzling and elusive American genre, running ribbons of scales and memorizing Charlie Parker solos. To care so much about a kind of music that's nearly impossible to conquer, and that is almost certain to guarantee a lifetime of being broke and miserable, is a specific kind of devotion. The best thing about Damien Chazelle's exuberant but wayward Whiplash is that it captures that ardent near-mania so beautifully. Loving any music this much will surely end in heartbreak -- and still, fools rush in.
In this case, Fool No. 1 is Miles Teller's Andrew, a jazz drummer, crackerjack for his age, yearning for that nebulous quality we call greatness. He's just made it into a top-notch conservatory, where he faces its most fearsome instructor, an abusive drill sergeant disguised in regulation hipster black. Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) is a buff, scowling chrome-dome -- a bad-attitude Mr. Clean berating his players with foul invective for the tiniest screw-up. He prides himself on leading his outfits to one jazz-competition victory after another, and his players are often hand-picked for the few plum gigs that exist in the jazz world.
Andrew is thrilled when Fletcher gives him a seat. He's less thrilled when Fletcher starts playing evil mind games with him. For the first two-thirds, at least, boosted by Andrew's sweaty rush of inspiration, Whiplash soars. But the movie's "Hey, guess what, Fletcher's just crazy!" resolution is unsatisfying. Chazelle may think he's asking big questions like, "How far should one go in striving for greatness?" But he's created a cartoon bad guy masquerading as a complex one.